On Monday, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, two former future presidents who do not like each other, joined forces to campaign for Joe Biden, a man that neither of them seemed to feel that strongly about until about 12 hours ago. For funsies, Beto O’Rourke joined in. This move represents a consolidation of the most ardently comme ci comme ça forces in the Democratic party, a fiercely lukewarm coalition of support for the one candidate who the establishment agrees might be able to beat Bernie Sanders. By the end of all this, they hope, America will unite to declare Joe Biden “okay, I guess.”
It was about a week ago that Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden shared a different stage, a debate stage where they spent fifty-seven hours shouting over, around, and about each other. This is one of many reasons this new affinity for Biden seems weird. On one hand, rivals becoming teammates is part of the political process. But on the other, the 2020 iteration of the rival-to-ally process of moderates dropping out and rushing to prop up Joe Biden’s staggering campaign is particularly uninspiring.
This all feels so counterproductive. Amy Klobuchar radiates dislike at Pete Buttigieg in much the same way that my cat radiates dislike for my partner’s dog who won’t leave her alone. Carrying Joe Biden over the finish line has driven Klobuchar to Mayor Pete, and so it must, in her view, be pretty urgent. And Beto’s decision to jump in indicates that even skateboarding progressive-adjacents who sometimes drop tape of the f-bomb can get down with Biden. Is this going to discourage Bernie’s base of support? Absolutely not. Establishment apoplexy is to populists what spinach is to Popeye. Whipping America’s gooey ideological center into a froth is part of progressive candidates’ appeal. It’s why Chris Matthews’ (happy retirement, by the way) barking at Elizabeth Warren went viral among her supporters and why supercuts of party-line Democrat pundits on cable news wringing their hands about a possible Bernie nomination are gleefully shared among his supporters. The harder Joe Scarborough tsks, the better.
The line from the Klobuchars-Buttigieg-style fall-in-line moderates is that a progressive nominee would inspire other people to either vote for Trump or stay home. First of all: who? Show me these actual people and establish to me that there are more of them than are former nonvoters turned out by their excitement about Bernie Sanders. Secondly, Amy, Pete, Beto, and lightly Republican Stephanie from sales who watches too much CNN and thinks she’s a pundit don’t know how other people are going to act on the other side of countless unknowable variables between here and Election Day any more than anybody else does. They assume that moderate fearmongering will convince Democratic voters to run away from scare-words they think Americans shouldn’t want (socialism) rather than toward policies that polling suggests Americans actually do want (socialized medicine, affordable education, a well-marbled billionaire in every pot). They must think that at the end of all this, Joe Biden will be president and we can pretend the entire Trump era never happened.
Going back to how it was is not how progress works. It’s the opposite of progress. And nominating moderates out of fear is not how Democrats win. Klobuchar of all people should know this; one of her early mentors was the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, a leading-edge progressive who introduced a single-payer healthcare bill into the Senate in 1993. Before it was cool! Part of me is convinced that if he hadn’t died in a plane crash in 2002, he’d be the president right now.
Every election cycle, moderate Democrats and Republicans who call themselves “independent centrists”—because they don’t want to reckon with the fact that they vote like a racist—freak out over the unelectibility of progressive change. But when is the last time the consensus moderate candidate won a presidential election for Democrats? Obama campaigned on hope and coolness. Bill Clinton ran on change and horniness. The last Democratic president elected before that was Jimmy Carter, who ran on turning the thermostat down and wearing a nice sweater indoors. Hillary Clinton, winner of the popular vote, ultimately ran for president on a platform that contained many progressive tenets, including Lena Dunham. To rally behind a moderate is to do the opposite of the Dylan Thomas poem. Consider the electibility of rage, raging against the dying of the light, when you could instead go gently into that good night.
As Amy and Pete shared a stage through dead-eyed D.C. smiles, as I read that Beto O’Rourke was joining them in spirit, I wondered what they were getting from all this. The idealist view is that they’re making a difficult decision in service of what they both personally believe is best for America. The cynical view is that they’ve had successful brand-building runs, and now it’s time to throw their support behind the guy who could one day appoint them to a cabinet post. The truth, in this case, at least, is probably somewhere in the middle.